“Helena,” Wanda said as she shook me. “Hurry, we have to go. I’m coming with you. Our mothers were together. Helena, now!”
What could have happened to Mother? I looked at the clock. She’s at her bible study brunch. I finally started moving. We dressed, grabbed our things, and rushed downstairs to where Max was waiting.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I’ll tell you on the way,” he replied. “Wanda, you can’t come with us.”
“I have to come with you. Our mothers were together.”
Max seemed angry. “Fine then. I don’t have time to argue. If your mother’s not at the hospital, you can call her from there.”
Arriving at the hospital, we ran up the stairs. My heart was racing. Father was in the hallway, speaking with the doctor. I ran to him.
“What happened to Mother? Is she alright?”
He kissed my forehead and stroked my hair.
“It’s okay. She’ll be okay,” he said. I began crying.
“Doctor, is there a phone Wanda may use to call her parents?” Father asked. “Her mother was with my wife before the attack, and we’re not sure where she is.”
“Attack! Mother was attacked!” I cried. Father hugged me tighter and put a hand on Max’s shoulder, assuring us that we’ll all get through this.
He walked us over the chairs. Father repeated the story that was reported by a woman who witnessed most of the attack.
"Your mother was walking with her friends to Aunt Rose’s house for their brunch. Suddenly there were three Russian soldiers behind them. The soldiers attempted to grab all three of them. Somehow two were able to get away, but they had your mother. She started to scream so they slapped and punched her to quiet her. One soldier grabbed her from behind and placed his hand over her mouth. The other two held her legs and they carried her into the lobby of a nearby apartment building."
"The witness only saw what happened out in the street, but she could hear your mother struggling in the lobby, the Russians yelling at her, and the sounds of them hitting her. That went on for about fifteen minutes, until she heard a door slam and everything went quiet. She waited a few minutes to make sure the soldiers were gone and then quietly cracked open her door. She could hear sobbing down in the lobby. She walked down the stairs to find your mother face down on the floor with most of her clothes torn off, so she ran back upstairs and called for an ambulance."
“So she was—“ Max said.
“Yes, she was raped,” Father replied.
Raped. I heard the word, but it didn’t register in my mind. Max was crying now. and I could see that Father was trying to hold himself together. He put an arm around each of us, leaned in, and allowed himself to cry. Why aren’t I crying now? I was before. I’m still trying to absorb the details. Until today, the war hadn’t had a significant impact on our lives, just superficial changes in our daily routines. But now it really hit home. My mother would never hurt another person, and she was viciously beaten and raped. She fought against her attackers, but they overpowered her. And now she - we - have to deal with the aftermath of the attack. Father and Max are crying, and I’m just sitting here. “Can we see her?” I finally asked.
Father started to stand when Max placed a hand on his shoulder. “You sit. I’ll go ask.” He nodded and slumped back into his seat. Wanda came over.
“How is your mother?” Wanda asked.
“Max went to get an update,” I replied.
“My father is coming to pick me up,” Wanda said. “He tried talking to my mother to find out what happened, but she’s curled up in bed crying.
“What happened?” Father looked up at her. “What happened is that your mother left my wife in the hands of those monsters. That’s what happened.” I put my arm around him, and he began sobbing again. Wanda hung her head and walked away.
Max returned a short while later with two cups of coffee and a tea for me.
“The doctor said she’ll be asleep for several hours, thanks to the painkillers they gave her. I asked if a police report was filed, and he told me that he’s seen quite a few of these attacks. The local police don’t have the power to investigate the Russian soldiers. He said the best thing is to just heal physically and find a way to deal with the emotional scars."
"I also asked for the name of the woman who witnessed the attack and called the ambulance, but he said she asked to remain anonymous. She didn’t want her name in any official reports. Maybe we can find out which building it was and leave a note for the woman, thanking her for her assistance.”
Wanda’s mother would know, I thought. She owes us that much.
Father had found a piece of paper and pencil and began making a list of things that need to be done: phone calls to family, letting his boss know he needs a few days off from work, bringing Mother a few personal items to make her more comfortable.
He stood and put on his jacket to leave when Max stopped him.
“Father, let us take care of everything. When Mother wakes, you should be here.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “We can handle this. We’ll go home, make the calls, and get Mother’s things. After that, we’ll get Grandpa Nick and bring him here. He’ll want to see her as soon as she wakes.”
Father nodded and collapsed back into his chair. “Stay together. I don’t want either of you walking alone out there. I mean it.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll be fine,” Max said.
Don’t worry? Of course he'll worry. He’s our father. I gave him a hug and a kiss and we left.
It felt good to be out in the fresh air. The hospital was so stuffy because they don’t open the windows. I clutched Max’s arm as we hurried home, wondering who might be watching us. I tried to imagine what my mother looked like, lying there in her hospital bed, and wondering what she was feeling. Fear? Anger? I know her well, but I still can’t decide which, or maybe both. We turned onto our block, and I noticed Wanda standing at the front door of her apartment building.
“How is your mother?” she asked meekly, not stepping beyond the doorway.
I gave her an angry glare and continued on into our building. It isn’t her fault that her mother ran, but I have no one to blame right now, and I could feel the anger rise up in me when I looked at her.
“Put together a bag for Mother,” Max ordered me. I could hear the anger in his voice. “I’ll make a few quick phone calls.”
I went into my parent’s bedroom and found a small leather bag. I don’t know why they own luggage; they never go anywhere. Mother talks about going to London to visit Alex, especially since the twins were born, but Father doesn’t like to take time off from work. I’m not sure why. Maybe after the war she and I can go, even if Father doesn’t want to. I gathered her nightgown, some undergarments and slippers, hairbrush, and toothbrush. I also packed the family photo she keeps on her nightstand and her Bible. Standing in the middle of the room, spinning in a circle trying to think of what else she might need, I was suddenly overcome with sadness and began weeping. I dropped down to the floor, and the picture frame slipped from my hand, the glass cracking. That made me cry even louder.
Max came running in to see what had happened. I tried to tell him I was fine but I couldn’t get the words out. He sat on the floor next to me, rubbing my back. I finally caught a breath deep enough to speak.
“How can something like this happen? How can God let this happen to a woman on her way to bible study? How will she get past this?”
Max knew I didn’t really want answers to those questions, so he just kept rubbing my back. I just needed to get it out. I don’t know exactly how long we sat there on the floor but the weight isn’t as heavy now.
“We need to find another picture frame for this photo,” I said. “We can’t bring her a cracked frame. I think the one on the end table is the same size.”
I took another deep breath, and Max and I stood up. He threw everything into the bag as I went to swap out the frames.
“I called Father’s boss at home, and he told me to tell him to take as long as he needs. Aunt Rose said she was worried when Mother and the other ladies didn’t show up for brunch. She tried calling us, but of course, no one was home. She'll let Jozef know, and we should call her when we get home so she can bring us food for the week. And, finally, I was able to get through to Uncle Alex’s house in London. He wasn’t there, but I spoke with Aunt Maggie. She told us to keep them updated and that Mother was in her prayers.”
I was listening to Max but not really hearing his words, so I just nodded.
“We need to pick up Grandpa Nick. With the stories he’s told me about the Russians, I can only imagine how angry he’ll be at the situation. We should also stop by the café for some sandwiches. Father will forget to eat if we don’t bring him something. Ready?”
“Yes, ready. No, wait, her robe. How could I forget that?” I ran into the bedroom to get it. “Now I’m ready.”
We walked over to Grandpa Nick’s apartment. I could feel Max tense as we walked up the stairs, dreading having to tell an old man that his daughter was in the hospital, severely beaten. He knocked on the door.
“Well, hello grandchildren! Come in. To what do I owe this pleasure? Are your parents with you?”
We both hugged him, but he quickly noticed that I was tearing up and asked what was wrong.
“Sit down, Grandpa,” Max said, helping him to his favorite chair. “Something has happened.”
As Max told him what had happened, I could see Grandpa’s hand tightening around his cane until his knuckles turned white.
“Those fucking bastards!” he yelled as he swung his cane, knocking over a table lamp. “How dare they hurt my girl! Bastards!”
“Grandpa, please, sit down before you hurt yourself,” Max said.
He knocked over the other table lamp before he realized I was still crying. The anger drained from his body, and he held out his arms to me.
“Sorry sweetie. I didn’t mean to scare you. Max, come here,” he whispered, waving Max forward, and he put his arms around both of us. “Everything will be okay.”
When we arrived back at the hospital, Uncle Jozef was there with Father. I felt better knowing that he hadn’t been sitting there alone the entire time we were gone. The doctor had allowed Father into Mother’s room, even though she was still asleep. Jozef said that Father was able to suppress his emotions when he was in the room, not wanting to upset her if she could hear him, but his hands were trembling by the time he came back to the waiting room.
“Did you see her, Uncle Jozef?” Max asked.
“Yes, I stepped in for a moment. Are you ready for the details?”
We all nodded and I held on to Max’s arm. “Her face is badly bruised and swollen, and she has a bandage over one eye. There are cuts to her lower lip and cheek that required stitches, and she has a concussion.”
I felt the tears welling up in my eyes again, but I took a deep breath to suppress the urge to cry. Grandpa Nick rubbed my back. “Are there any broken bones?” he asked.
“No,” Jozef continued. “The doctor said he was surprised that none of her bones were broken, and there was no internal bleeding. There are a few other injuries…Michal, should I tell them?”
Father nodded. Jozef took a deep breath and continued.
“There is a lot of bruising on her thighs and backside, and she also needed stitches as a result of the sexual assault.” I buried my face in Max’s chest as he put his arm around me.
“Fucking bastards!” Grandpa Nick was shouting again. He began pacing and hitting the chairs with his cane. It took us a few minutes to calm him down. The hospital staff was just staring, shocked at such language coming from this old man. Father apologized to them.
“Father, sit down,” Max said, guiding him to a chair. “We brought you something to eat. It’s been a long day and you need to keep up your strength. Jozef, would you mind getting us something to drink?”
“Not a problem. I’ll be right back. You should all eat.”
Max and I sat down on either side of our father and unwrapped the sandwiches. They’re warm by now, but until I took a bite, I didn’t realize how hungry I was. Jozef came back with an assortment of drinks.
“I grabbed two of everything,” he said. “Nick, come sit with us. What would you like to drink?”
Grandpa Nick looked up. “Nothing, thank you, I’m fine. The children should drink the milk.”
Max and I grinned. He still sees us as little kids. We both reached for the milk to make him happy. Father managed to eat only half of his sandwich before setting it aside and going to find the doctor. Visiting hours end soon, and he wanted to see Mother again. Max and I wanted to see her, too, but Uncle Jozef suggested that we wait until tomorrow. She might be awake then. I really want to see her now, but I guess it makes sense to wait. I don’t know if I can control my emotions right now, and if she's awake, I don’t want to upset her. Grandpa Nick went with my father. No one can stop him from seeing his daughter.
When we left the hospital for the day, Max and I insisted that Grandpa Nick spend the night with us.
“You can take my bed, Grandpa,” Max said. “I don’t mind the sofa.”
It took a lot of convincing. He didn’t really feel comfortable outside of his own apartment. "Just an old man set in his ways," he would say.
We arrived home to the smell of bread baking. Aunt Rose was there. She used Uncle Jozef’s spare key to get in. She had just taken a casserole out of the oven and was waiting for the rolls to finish baking. The apartment had been cleaned, and the table was set. She came over and hugged each of us.
“How is Zofia?”
“She’s stable,” Jozef replied.
Father was in a daze and walked straight to his bedroom.
“She was badly beaten, but all of her physical injuries will heal," Jozef said. "It’s the emotional injuries that will take time to mend.”
I could see that Rose wanted to cry, but she held it in, being strong for us. Jozef took her into his arms and hugged her tightly.
After dinner Aunt Rose insisted on cleaning up. She packed up the leftovers and gave me instructions for reheating them tomorrow. She told me not to worry about any meals. Everything would be taken care of.
“Thank you. Mother would appreciate your taking care of us.”
“It’s family,” she replied. “She would do the same for Jozef and Viktor if I were injured or ill.”
She’s right. Mother would step up without a second thought.
After Jozef and Rose left, I glanced over at the clock and realized that, for a long day, it' was still rather early. I went to see if Father had eaten the dinner we brought him. It looked like he had taken a couple of bites before falling asleep. I cleared the plate and left him a glass of water on the nightstand, hoping he’d sleep through the night.
I joined Max and Grandpa Nick in the sitting room. No one had anything to say, so Max turned on the radio. We listened to the news for a little while, and then he switched to music. Grandpa soon dozed off in the armchair. Max woke him and helped him into bed, loaning him a pair of pajamas, and then came back to the sofa. We just sat there, listening to the music, but not really hearing it.
Mother was awake when we arrived at the hospital the next morning. The doctor warned us, though, that although the swelling may have subsided a bit, the bruises will usually look worse before they begin heal. Grandpa Nick pushed ahead into the room, followed by Father and then Max and me. Her face looked worse than I imagined, but we all smiled and told her how glad we were to see her. I walked over to the bed and tried to hold her hand, but she pulled away.
“I’m sorry. Did I hurt you? I’m so sorry,” I said, beginning to cry again.
Her lips were moving, trying to make out words. I leaned in and she whispered, “Don’t cry. Hand is okay. My fault, not yours.”
Her fault? “No, Mother. Nothing is your fault. All you have to think about it resting and getting well.” This time she let me take her hand while Father dabbed away her tears with his handkerchief.
Grandpa Nick was getting angry again, so he left the room to go for a walk. We told Mother about Aunt Rose coming by to clean the apartment and cook for us, and she nodded her approval.
“You and Max. Work. Helena. School,” she whispered to Father, who assured her that missing a few days wasn’t a problem. It’s more important that we all be together. She nodded again but was obviously sleepy.
Max and I went out into the hallway. Father stayed a moment longer, until two nurses entered the room to turn her over so the cuts on her backside don’t get infected. It felt good to be able to see her after that long day yesterday, but at the same time it’s a relief to leave the room. I couldn’t look at her face a second longer. My mother was in there somewhere.
Max and I sat in the waiting room while Father went to look for Grandpa Nick. I just sat there, watching a small spider crawl around in the corner. Max was writing something, but I’m not curious enough to look over to see what it is. I realized that when we were in the room, I hadn’t set the family photo on the nightstand for Mother to see when she wakes. Maybe a nurse will let me sneak in.
As I stood, the doctor came over to us. “Is your father here?”
“No," Max replied. “He went to look for our grandfather. Is something wrong with our mother?”
The doctor let out a sigh and rubbed his forehead. “No, your mother is resting. It’s your grandfather. Maybe I should wait for your father.”
“What?” I asked. “What’s wrong with Grandpa?”
He looked around to see if Father was nearby, but decided that he needed to tell us either way.
“Your grandfather is in the emergency room. A hospital employee saw the entire incident. She reported that your grandfather had been walking around in front of the hospital, swatting bushes with his cane, when he noticed several Russian soldiers nearby. He stood there for a moment, staring at them, before marching over and swinging his cane at them. He was screaming ‘Damn Cossacks!’ and accused them of attacking his daughter. At first the soldiers sparred with him, laughing, but then his cane hit one of them on the head, and they weren’t playing anymore. They beat him to the ground with the butts of their rifles, kicking him and spitting on him, until one soldier removed a pistol from his belt and fired a single shot into your grandfather’s head.”
He paused for a moment, seeing our shock. “I’m very sorry. He was dead before we even got him inside.”
“Wait a minute. That can’t be. How can this happen? No. No. Grandpa is just out for a walk. He can’t be dead. His daughter needs him. We need him,” I was rambling and pacing when Max put an arm around me and pulled me down into a chair.
I looked into his face. What’s going on here? This is a nightmare. None of this is really happening. Then I saw the tears in Max’s eyes. It is real. Oh, God, how can we tell Mother about this? We just held each other.
A half-hour passed before Father came back. “Sorry I took so long. I found a telephone and wanted to make a couple of calls. Are you two okay?”
The doctor walked back over to us. Father looked at him, then at us, and then back at the doctor again.
“My wife, is she—“
“No, it’s not your wife.”
The doctor put a hand on Father's shoulder and led him away to tell him what happened. When he was done, Father sank into a chair, his face in his hands. After a few minutes, he stood up perfectly straight, threw out his chest, and shook out his arms like that would make this horror end. He walked over to us.
“Okay. As if we don’t have enough to deal with, someone up there has thrown another disaster at us. First things first, I’m going to tell the doctor and nurses that they are not to tell your mother about her father’s death. I think we need to wait a few days until she’s strong enough to hear the news. I don’t know if that’s the right thing to do, and she might be angry at us for not telling her right away, but for now, I think it’s the best thing."
"I’m going to go down to the emergency room to formally identify his body, and then I’ll call a funeral home to make the necessary arrangements. If your mother is well enough to attend the funeral, she will. If not, she’ll have to grieve later.”
He stroked my hair and put his hand beneath my chin, doing the same to Max. “Okay? We’ll get through this together.”
Max and I nodded, but at that moment, I didn’t feel like we would even get through the day.
The next few days were a blur. I had mixed emotions about visiting the hospital. It was wonderful seeing Mother’s wounds healing, knowing that she’ll be able to come home soon, but I felt like we were lying to her by not telling her about her father. We buried Grandpa Nick in the plot next to Grandma Greta. It was a small group of mourners with Mother in the hospital and Alex in London. When we called Alex to tell him about his father’s death, he agreed that we should wait a few days to tell Mother. We lost the connection before we could update him on her condition, but the call lasted long enough for him to know that she was getting better. I can’t imagine how he feels, being thousands of miles away from these family tragedies and not being able to help.
Finally, Mother was well enough to come home. This past week felt like the longest in my life. The nurse showed me how to change her bandages, thinking she’d be more comfortable with a woman doing it, and the doctor reviewed the warnings on the medications he prescribed. The dosage recommendations have to be strictly followed, and the pills should not be taken at the same time.
When we arrived home, Uncle Jozef and Aunt Rose were there with little Viktor, who greeted us at the door with a very loud "Welcome Home!" and a flower. Rose had been cooking all day, and there was a beautiful bouquet of flowers in the vase on the table. Mother began to cry, so Father helped her into the bedroom to rest. By the time he came out, Rose and I had set the table, and we were ready to sit down to eat. Father looked tired and needed a good meal. Rose brought a bowl of broth into the bedroom for my mother, and she was in there a long time. Tomorrow will be the first day of our journey back to normal, but I’m beginning to forget what normal looks and feels like.
Father woke early the next morning. He wanted to go to the office for a little while, figuring that Mother would sleep most of the day. Shortly after he left, however, she was in the kitchen making breakfast for me and Max.
“Mother, what are you doing? I asked. “You’re supposed to be resting. I can take care of things until you’re well enough.”
She nodded with a sigh, keeping both hands on the counter as she walked toward the kitchen table and gingerly lowered herself into a chair. Max and I finished getting breakfast ready. Mother didn’t eat much, but she said that after a week of hospital food, even simple toast and jam was a treat. There was a lot of tension at the table. Max and I didn’t know what to talk about.
“We need to check in on my father,” Mother said, breaking the silence.
Max and I looked at each other. “Yes, soon, when you’ve recovered a bit,” Max said. Neither of us made eye contact with her.
“Is something wrong? Something you’re not telling me?”
I kept my eyes on my toast.
“Tell me now, or I’ll call your father at work,” she said, grimacing as she began to stand.
“No, no, sit,” Max said, helping her back down into her seat. “We’ll tell you.”
And we did, or rather Max did. I sat there quietly, seeing the disbelief in her eyes. I walked around the table to put my arms around her, but she pushed me away as she stood and shuffled into the bedroom, closing the door behind her.
We decided to let her rest, so Max and I tried to busy ourselves with reading. Peter called to check on us. He asked if he could come by after dinner, but I told him that today wasn’t a good day. Soon though. Not long into our conversation, Max took the phone, and he whispered with Peter for almost a half-hour.
Father came home for lunch, so I heated up some of the stew that Aunt Rose left for us. We told him that we had to tell Mother about her father. He hurried to the bedroom, but the door was locked, and Mother wasn’t responding to his requests to open it. He went for a screwdriver and removed the doorknob. Max and I peered in as he went to the bed. She appeared to be sleeping.
“Zofia,” Father whispered, stroking her hand. “Zofia,” a little louder now, shaking her arm. “Zofia!”
I stepped into the room and noticed a pill bottle on the floor.
“Father, look,” I said.
He reached down and picked up the bottle. It was empty.
“Zofia! No, no, why!”
Max ran to the phone to call for an ambulance.
“Oh Zofia,” Father whispered, rocking her in his arms.
I wanted to go to the bed and hug them, but it was as if my feet were stuck in quicksand.
“They’ll be here in a few minutes, “Max said from the doorway. He couldn’t bring himself to step into the room.
A few minutes? We all knew it was already too late.